“He was a Primitive, and he lived cavily in a Cave…”
Pithecanthropus, Homo Erectus, Eoanthropus: they have a call almost as sharp as the names of dinosaurs so beloved of four year-olds in the sandpit, and as Chris Stringer points out the names largely arise from the intellectual history of the last two centuries: Colin Renfrew skillfully traces these in terms of the technologies available to early archaeologists and tells us the story of the names and their importance..
Alongside the adult histories are the books and other media trying either to explain these scientific discoveries, or to use Early Man [hold on: I’m coming to this] as a lens to look at something in our own time: there’s list at the end of this blog, with some links. I exclude my favourite of this genre – at least, my favourite until I met Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet – Clive King’s great The 22 Letters, because it is set even closer to our own time, but again the thread is technological advances (navigation; horse riding, the beginnings of simple alphabet) saving society.
Like many of my generation, my first exposure to “the Stone Age” must have been the Flintstones, where the characters showed us an idealised American society with its 1960s technology and its (largely white) working class society where the material culture represented both the current US but with Stone Age adaptation – the record player where the needle was a bird was one of my favourites. A Stone Age as the lens for exploring the follies of our own age has been visited a number of times: Mitchell and Webb’s Bronze Orientation training is a personal favourite, and uses modern language to great effect. The puns in the Flintstones fulfilled a similar purpose and were, as one source puts it, relentless.
When it came out I was not allowed to see One Million Years B.C. – the B.C. says it all for me – although it seems to me now to be both ridiculous and at the same time the foundation text for Clan of the Cave Bear.
I’ve just finished the important – but to my mind flawed – blockbuster by Jean M Auel. She has done her homework to a remarkable degree, and uses insights from present day hunter-gatherer cultures (or the remnants of them) to reconstruct a possible way of living and believing for the Clan of the Cave Bear, the bow-legged, brow-ridged people with whom Ayla, the straight-legged, blonde and linguistically agile Homo Sapiens lives for most of the book,. We must, I think, identify the Clan as Homo Neanderthalensis – but this is where I stumble. There is a not-so-hidden ideology in so resolutely emphasising the whiteness of the principal character, the orphaned so very white. Of course, Auel is working with presuppositions of her time, and trying, too, to emphasise that this is just the beginning of the dominance of Homo Sapiens over (a loaded word, too?) Neanderthals, seen here as Ayla outclassing her Neantherthal foster family. The race to what Steven Mithen refers to as “cognitive fluidity” is won by Sapiens, and using the tools for the job are part of a set of use and tool development and (Mithen would argue) abilities to read and exploit diverse environments and social situations.
“The Neanderthals were a proto-species, an embryonic light that flickered in evolutionary time, but was not strong enough to stand across epochs,” as Adam Rutherford puts it, and the Shaman, the Mog-Ur of the Clan of the Cave Bear, is led to foresee a similar end to his people. So fair enough: taller, smarter (her language games and abstract mathematics show us this, but we see it also in her intuition and, because of the stance of the author, a certain moral primacy in her standing up to the abusive male Broud, a truly hateful character): but does she need to be so white?
Auel is making a number of points about personal development, liberation, belonging. So much so, in many ways, that the story is interwoven with descriptions of tribal customs, technological practices, herbal medicine. Although we are a long stretch of time from Elaine Morgan’s “nothing to do with apples” vision of the Fall, Clan of the Cave Bear does explore the complex interplay between assumed or observed experience and religion; the ways in which reproduction and the role of men are explored as Ayla figures out that conception and childbirth are less about the spiritual power of a totem and more about mating is intriguing, (sort of) believable… although it did remind me of the conversations about birth control when the sukebind is in bloom in Cold Comfort Farm.
And this brings me to the first real point in this rambling: just as Stella Gibbons is exploring the follies of her own time by setting her novel in a “near future,” Jean Auel is exploring her own time by looking to a time when Homo Sapiens – “the Others” – are making inroads into the lands and cultures of the Neanderthals. How will mixed Sapiens/Neanderthals be accepted? How will the power struggle play out? What part will technological innovation play?
To turn to a book on a similar theme – less well-known these days – Kathleen Fidler’s 1968 novel The Boy with the Bronze Axe – we find the incomer Tenko and his superior technology (including boat-handling) a source of triumph (the graphic whale-hunt which ends with a final blow from the bronze axe Tenko carries) and facing crises of acceptance and ecological peril. Though this is set later than Auel, we meet here a recurrent theme: the interplay of culture and technology as a society faces new challenges.
As children’s literature mourns Raymond Briggs’ recent death, I cannot ignore Ug, the stone-age boy whose imagination challenges the comic status quo of stone trousers and bedclothes, &c. He is a divergent thinker (a bit like [but oh! so unlike!] Auel’s Ayla), suggesting “what if” improvements to his family’s life: fields to stop the animals running away when you hunt them, fruit juice… Just as his stone-dominated life frustrates Ug – tennis played with stone bats, a game of football where the goal looks rather like Stonehenge – the technology of modern youth puzzles Ug’s parents, his mother in particular, – and the humour of this is also a satire on present day shifts in technology and problem solving. The narrator’s comment as Ug and his dad drag a dead dinosaur back to the cave is worth pondering:
No one living in the stone age would know he was living in the stone age. He would believe he has living in the modern age. Today we believe we are living in the modern age. Time will tell.
Time does tell, too. Auel and Fidler create technologically competent cultures, and using indicators of technology helps mark a time-span for a narrative, as in the fight over the iron dagger in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet, or (later in human history) the arrival of changes in material design in Sun Horse Moon Horse. Ug and his dad are figuring out that soft trousers need backs as well as fronts, and Steven Mithen makes the real life comment about the shaping of flints, and how what looks like a crude way of shaping lumps of rock, is actually a unique set of problem-solving activities for every flint knapped*.
The knowingness of the Flintstones and Clan of the Cave Bear is the disjuncture between the lives we live, and the lives lived then (whenever “then” was). For Fred, Wilma and the gang, an incongruous dinosaur is used as a quarry digger, they have foot-powered cars, and the problematic social situations that they encounter are used as satire mirror the society of post war suburban America. While the tone and context for Ayla is different, there is a similarity in that her struggles with sexism, with power, with belonging and identity are more solemn, the Clan of the Cave Bear asks the audience to think about our current society, and the social and technological aspects of progress.
Why does this way of looking at The Past have such power?
I think the technology serves a number of purposes, in the wide spread of the genre of historical fiction: it fixes the time scale, and gives a flavour of the past. When Rudyard Kipling looks at the first alphabet in his wildly inaccurate comic Just So story How the First Letter was Written, he gives a flavour of his own vision of society: a loving dad taking pains to indulge his daughter.
ONCE upon a most early time was a Neolithic man. He was not a Jute or an Angle, or even a Dravidian, which he might well have been, Best Beloved, but never mind why. He was a Primitive, and he lived cavily in a Cave, and he wore very few clothes, and he couldn’t read and he couldn’t write and he didn’t want to…
Kipling’s characters – I suspect underpinned with his view of “primitive” cultures elsewhere in the world – are described by their shortcomings. Even the pictograms the little girl sends go horribly, violently (comically?) wrong. Advance is prophesied, and in the sequel to the the first letter, “How the Alphabet was Made” Taffimai does make progress, and in the poem/parallel with Kipling’s time is described with great tenderness. However, it is worth remembering that her tribe are comic characters like Ug’s people; in the story of How the First Letter was Written the “silly primitives” are really all about misunderstanding and slapstick in the mud. The Dawn Men are stumbling around in the half-light.
Three sets of texts that stand out against this running theme of technological advance would be the great disquisition on place and story that is Boneland, the brilliant adventures of Torak in Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother sequence and Peter Dickinson’s The Kin. In the first, we do not need to understand all at once the refugium in which the Palaeolithic (?) Man lives – in fact, our distance from understanding deepens the mystery of The Man and his relationship to Colin – and in the second there seems to me a skilful avoidance of any sense of the clans “going somewhere” with their fish traps, or boats. The third, while dealing with the issues of progress and human development looks honestly at the young people finding their place in a world after their own lives have been shattered. The last of these is so complex it would deserve its own post: suffice to say that Dickinson’s view of human development admits the shadows of moral corruption but looks at linguistic and psychological (and spiritual) development far more keenly that it does at what tool is used and by whom.
But there is often some sense of progress in these technological markers in stories set so far back in time, and in Briggs’ Ug, the eponymous boy genius is in opposition to his parents, notably his mother. Is this a reworking of Briggs’ own childhood? Again, it is language that provides much of the comedy: Ug’s mother objecting to “nice” and “soft” is telling. The parallel with our present time challenges us: is imagination leading us as adults to say, with Ug’s parents, that progress is all very well but. The ending is particularly telling: the child with imagination has grown up and after the death of his parents (their graves are in a corner of the cave) he is a painter on the walls of his cave, the artist with vision but frustrated and alone. He ends with this querulous speech:
I wish it wasn’t the Stone Age. I wish the Stone Age would end. Things must get better…It can’t always be like this…People will have nice, soft, warm trousers…one day…perhaps…in the future. Things will get better.. Won’t they?
Perhaps this is about hope, and the struggle for development, and the characters at the centre of all these books stand for a human urge to use the imagination. Ayla is seeing, dimly, a world where personal liberation is possible; Torak is looking for freedom, for belonging in the face of hatred and evil; the Man finds acceptance as his stories are passed on – and Ug? The ending of Ug’s story is ambiguous, maybe even tragic: things will get better as ideas are listened to. But the last image, of adult Ug alone in his cave does not afford more than a glimmer of hope: do people listen?
To finish, and as a sort of answer, I’m staying with The Puddleman, another Briggs book from the early 2000s, Tom – very much in change of his grandfather – gets a ride in his grandfather’s shoulders:
“I can see for you,” he claims – but the last thing the boy Tom says is in criticism of the older generation: “You can’t see anything. “
I can see for you.
Please note, as some reviewers have failed to do, that Briggs’ Ug Boy Genius of the Stone Age and His Search for Soft Trousers is a comic look at technology… Perhaps it doesn’t fit with the other books; it certainly leads me off into the Briggs digression.
Appendix: Not so much a list of books consulted (although they all were!) as a note to self of where I might take this next. More from Elaine Morgan than a quick quotation; a look at Stig of the Dump; Dickinson’s The Kin. The last of these certainly.
|Auel||Jean M||Clan of the Cave Bear|
|Briggs.||Raymond||Ug, Boy Genius of the Stone Age|
|de Waal||Frans||Our Inner Ape|
|Fidler||Kathleen||The Boy with the Bronze Axe|
|King||Clive||Stig of the Dump The 22 Letters|
|Kipling||Rudyard||Just So Stories|
|Mithen:||Steven||The Singing Neanderthals Prehistory of the Mind|
|Morgan||Elaine||The Descent of Woman|
|Rutherford||Adam||A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived|
|Sutcliff||Rosemary||Warrior Scarlet Sun Horse Moon Horse|